The co-chair of Public Health England’s (PHE) alcohol leadership board has resigned over the agency’s partnership with industry-funded Drinkaware for its new ‘Drink Free Days’ campaign. Professor Sir Ian Gilmore, who is also chair of the Alcohol Health Alliance, had previously expressed objections to the partnership, citing a ‘clear conflict of interest’ between the drinks industry’s objectives and public health goals.
The campaign marks the first time that PHE has joined forces with an industry-funded organisation, and members of the alcohol leadership board expressed their concerns about the partnership at a meeting with PHE chief executive Duncan Selbie in late August.
A joint letter from Professor Gilmore and director of the UK Centre for Tobacco and Alcohol Studies, Professor John Britton, was also published in the Times the day after the campaign launched. The partnership marked ‘a major shift in PHE policy in its willingness to share a platform with the alcohol industry’, it stated, and also demonstrated ‘a failure at senior level’ to learn the lessons of how voluntary agreements had been used by the drinks and tobacco industries to ‘undermine, water down or otherwise neutralise’ policies to cut consumption.
The partnership has proved controversial across the public health field. Prior to the launch a letter expressing concerns about a conflict of interest was sent to PHE, with signatory organisations including the royal colleges of physicians, psychiatrists, nursing and emergency medicines, the BMA and the Association of Directors of Public Health.
Treatment charity Blenheim said it was ‘deeply concerned’ about PHE’s decision to run a campaign with an industry-funded body, and felt that the campaign’s messages would ‘influence people to do nothing’.
‘Blenheim welcome a government-funded programme of health campaigns but this has to be without industry involvement and in line with the chief medical officer’s guidelines to increase public knowledge of alcohol and its links to a wide range of physical and mental health conditions,’ said chief executive John Jolly. ‘From research around social influence and influence psychology we know that people want to conform to the norm. The campaign gives the message most people find it hard to reduce their alcohol use which essentially drives people to do nothing as the take home message is that change is seen as too hard.’
Times letter at www.thetimes.co.uk/edition/comment/vince-cables-leadership-of-the-lib-dems-qcxcsgd38 (paywall)